It’s Better to Mine the World’s Rainforests Than Farm Them


As if the world forests were not having enough problems to cope with, even the transition to zero-carbon energy was threatening its level.

According to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, industrial mining consumed 3,265 square kilometers (1,260 square miles) of tropical forest between 2002 and 2019. About 80% of the total occurred in only four countries: Indonesia, Brazil, Ghana and Suriname.

With the COP27 climate conference in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh next week expected to increase the focus on the climate needs of developing countries, there is concern that there is not enough land to control the shift away from fossil fuels. . Many of the world’s reserves of nickel, the main metal for the production of electric car batteries, are under the rainforests of Southeast Asia. The Alliance for the Environment said in a July letter to Tesla Inc.

An honest and comprehensive assessment of the entire life cycle of clean energy “cars will reveal” negative social and environmental impacts “on the ground, noted Michael Heberling, a researcher at Baker College Michigan this year.

Mining actually involves the destruction of the soil around it. Even where minerals are extracted underground rather than on the surface, the processing facilities and transport infrastructure around them consume many hectares of rural areas.

However, the challenges of conserving the world’s ecosystems are so great that we have to risk looking at only a small part of the elephant rather than the animal as a whole. Almost all economic activities have some environmental costs. The question is not about finding free activities, but identifying them for maximum social and economic benefit.

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At first it is worth considering that the amount of goods we consume each year varies greatly: about 8.2 billion tons of coal and 4.2 billion tons of oil. 1.2 billion tons of corn and 780 million tons of wheat; 25 million tons of copper and 2.7 million tons of nickel; 3,000 tons of gold and 180 tons of platinum.

That does not give the whole story. Nickel ore contains about a thousand times more metal than gold ore, so a smaller gold industry output leads to a similar amount of waste rock. Then there is the question of surface disturbances: goods extracted from open mines, such as iron ore, have larger legs than objects such as platinum, which are mostly dug deep underground. Oil and gas extracted from the seabed do not cover an acre of land, except for those used for land transportation and operations.

Looking in terms of soil intensity – the number of hectares needed to meet human needs – it is clear that minerals are still a highly efficient use of space. All of the world’s mines cover just 101,583 square kilometers, according to this year’s study, based on satellite observations, which are smaller areas we use for rice cultivation and less than 0.2% of The world’s agricultural land.

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Another consideration is how often the goods are reused. The 50 kg nickel in the electric car battery will be used repeatedly for tens of thousands of kilometers where the car is driven and can then be recycled for other uses when the car is destroyed. Discard. On the other hand, 50 liters of gasoline in your fuel tank will have to be refueled thousands of times before the car is taken to the dump. Farmland for all the vast land it uses can produce the same amount from year to year, even increasing over time with increasing agricultural yields.

Energy is an important and relevant consideration. If your electric car is charged with the energy produced by burning coal, it is likely to have more ground support than electricity from nuclear, wind or gas – both because coal is cheaper in relation to land demand and because of it. The supply must be constantly renewed by the extraction of more coal. Solar energy, for all its benefits related to carbon emissions, also scams the earth a lot.

The final consideration is to consider the cost of land use as well as its benefits. Not all lands are created equal. About 60% of the world’s carbon biomass is stored in forests, another 22% in grasslands and pastures. Keeping carbon trapped in living tissue rather than releasing it into the atmosphere is a difficult task, especially for low-income tropical countries with the largest forests and some of the biggest needs for land use. Inputs. Into economic growth.

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That’s where the whole world has a playful part. Economic development requires not only land but also labor, capital and productivity. Most developing countries do not have a shortage of manpower, but the capital needed to effectively develop land and drive their economies up the value chain is too short. Promises made by rich countries a decade ago to provide $ 100 billion in annual investment to other parts of the world to emit carbon and adapt to the effects of climate change remain unfulfilled. No.

If rich countries want tropical forest land that has already been cleared to be used more efficiently and, if possible, return to nature, they will need more capital-intensive activities. Mining has no environmental impact. But it’s better than most options.

More by Bloomberg Opinion:

Even Lula’s victory could not restore Brazil’s forests: David Fickling

• To save the planet, poor nations must be paid: Mihir Sharma

• Sequoias are built to withstand fire, but not these fires: Faye Flam

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David Fickling is the author of the Bloomberg Opinion, which covers energy and commodities. He has previously worked for Bloomberg News, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

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